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The Microsoft Garage delivers a second wave of diverse apps for consumers and developers

A wave – of cross-platform apps – has arrived from the Microsoft Garage, and they bring a bounty of benefits, from easy access to Visual Studio Online projects to air quality reports in China to a way to connect to conference calls using voice commands.

Building upon the initial wave of incubation apps launched from the Garage in October, DevSpace, Your Weather, and Join Conference are three of nine projects that continue the momentum from the fall. As eclectic as they are in function and design, the philosophy of the Garage ties them together. Founded in 2009, the Garage acts as a hub for grassroots innovation at the company, connecting people and dissolving traditional boundaries of geographies, organizations and disciplines. This spirit has helped grow the Garage into a community of more than 10,000 Microsoft employees and interns in 36 Garage chapters around the world.

Screenshots from DevSpace
Screenshots from DevSpace

“Great ideas are easy. The magic happens where execution meets data. The Garage focuses on connecting people with diverse perspectives to quickly bring an idea to life, share it and learn from that experience,” says Ed Essey, senior program manager, whose business card reads “Captain of the Ship.”

For Microsoft developers Milind Solage and Soniya Khoja, “The Garage converts ideas into realities.”

Solage and Khoja created DevSpace, which gives software engineers working on projects in Visual Studio Online the ability to check in on parts of a project using their phone, instead of having to power up their laptops and get on the corporate network. (Access is secured on mobile devices through OAUTH and a two-step credentials verification process.)

“When we work on these side projects, [Garage advisors] come up with feedback, they give us points of contact we can connect with to help us with UI design and roadblocks,” Solage says. “Soniya and I both work on this outside of office hours, but it’s because we’re both passionate about this idea. It’s a good way to learn new technologies, as well as convert ideas into actual projects.”

DevSpace, which took about five months from creation to completion, provides fast access to work items and queries, including the use of push notifications to get build status on the start screen, and access through secondary tiles. It also responds to voice commands using Cortana integration.

While these developers and their app are based in Redmond, Washington, others are getting help through the Garage from much farther away.

Your Weather is a Chinese-language app for Windows Phone that brings personalized air quality and weather reports for cities in China.

garageApps2“We’re encouraged, as part of our work, to identify key problems in China and create solutions,” says Jacky Hsu, principal program manager in Asia Research and Development for Microsoft. “We worked closely with Microsoft Research Asia and government (China Meteorological Administration) on this app. Air quality is a hot topic in China, and MSR Asia has a team that focuses on this issue. We decided to work with them to bring their algorithms using Azure Machine Learning to the China market.”

The app also stands apart through its artistic use of Chinese paintings integrated into the interactive reports. Live Tiles and Lock Screen integration give users instant updates so they don’t have to open the app to get the information they need. And, in following with the Garage trademark of iterating quickly in response to customer feedback, Hsu and his team produced 17 updates in about three months based on 20,000 beta users’ comments.

“The key challenge is this is totally different from the traditional engineering process,” Hsu says. “We need to be very agile, monitor feedback every day and move fast. The Garage plays a key role as it encourages the culture and provides support. For example, it provides a OneNote list for all the processes we need to go through internally, and that’s super helpful. We also just had a hackathon, which is also supported by the Garage.”

Screenshots from Join Conference.
Screenshots from Join Conference.

Back in the U.S., in Alpharetta, Georgia, Join Conference emerged as a time-saver for those of us who make frequent conference calls (everyone raise their hands).

“We wanted the user experience to be very easy. You just launch the app and there’s a big join button at the top for your current meeting or even easier you just speak to Cortana the voice command ‘Join Conference,” says Bret Johnson, a senior architect who came up with the concept for the app. “Under the covers, though, the app parses through your meeting invite text in the calendar. From that it can see what kind of conference system it is, what the meeting ID and PIN codes are, and if you’re the meeting leader. Then it figures out the best way to connect to the meeting, either launching another app (like Lync or GoToMeeting) or dialing the right access phone number and ID/PIN touch tones to join.”

Johnson recalls how the Garage helped progress as an app.

“The Garage was crucial here as it provides an avenue to ship apps more experimental in nature, where any long term product plans aren’t fully figured out yet,” Johnson says. “For Join Conference, it lets us test the concept with a wide variety of real life corporate conference systems, to prove it works well and flesh out any issues when it doesn’t. Plus Join Conference arose as an intrapreneurial app and the Garage is great for supporting us intrapreneurs.”

Also releasing Wednesday are: Keyboard for Excel, which replaces your keyboard with a layout optimized for Excel; and with SquadWatch, you get real-time information on friends and loved ones so you don’t have to text or call about their whereabouts or availability.

Some Garage apps have already gotten a headstart on this release. Mouse without Borders, a classic Garage project that first launched with great success in 2011, is now available to more people via the Workbench and you can control up to four computers from a single mouse and keyboard. Re-releasing with enhancements, Developer Assistant provides developers the means to find and re-use millions of code snippets and code sample projects from within Visual Studio.  Earlier this month, Picturesque Lock Screen launched, bringing Bing home page images to Android lock screens. You can see missed calls and text messages at a glance and also search directly from the lock screen. It also shows current weather, news and regional calendars. And 2.5 updates for the popular Torque app include shaking your Android phone to voice search the Web, to make a phone call, to text your friends, to launch an app, or to take notes with dictation.

“The Garage is realizing a dream, helping makers of small-scale projects connect with consumers,” says Essey. “The momentum continues to build as we release both updates and fresh surprises on a variety of platforms. We invite everyone to join us by visiting the Garage Workbench, getting their hands on our projects and telling us what they like and what they want to see next.”

Find all these apps and more at the Microsoft Garage.

Milind Solage and Soniya Khoja, creators of DevSpace, one of several incubation apps from the Microsoft Garage releasing Feb. 25. Photo credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures